What is Socialism?

Perhaps no other word in the English language can hold as many different connotations than “socialism”. Socialism has come to describe a broad range of economic theories and practices throughout its long history. According to Merriam-Webster, socialism is “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods”. The means of production refer to anything that society uses to make products, including tools, raw materials, land, machines, and energy.

In the 2016 presidential election, candidate Senator Bernie Sanders described himself as a “democratic socialist”. What, then, is democratic socialism? How can socialism be democratic if it involves big government limiting the livelihoods of individuals by redistributing wealth for the sake of equality?

At its core, socialism is a system where the workers control the means of production as opposed to capitalist private ownership by a small class of elites.

Socialism is a theory of economic and political decentralization, with the distribution of economic and political power from being concentrated in the hands of the bourgeois to being dispersed evenly among all workers. Socialism is not taking from the rich and giving to the poor, but the abolishment of rich and poor altogether. Socialists do not fight for equality of outcome, but equality of power, which is only achieved when all the goods produced by society are owned by society. Different branches of socialism disagree on the role of the state in abolishing the capitalist mode of production, but all socialists and communists believe in the basic assertion of collective control of the means of production.



The concept of socialism being inherently authoritarian has its origins in the practical implementation of Marxist theory, which, since the Russian Revolution, has been heavily influenced by the ideas of Vladimir Lenin. The term “Classical Marxism” is used to describe the theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, as contrasted with developments and additions to Marxism by later Marxists. Marx predicted that workers around the world would seize the means of production by transforming the modern bourgeois state into a “dictatorship of the proletariat” through a revolution in order to establish socialism. Marx believed that a socialist revolution would inevitably occur to replace the inefficient and unsustainable system of capitalism, which would collapse under the weight of its own contradictions in the form of overproduction and economic recession.

The term “dictatorship” in this context is authoritarian in nature to the extent that it allows the oppressed majority to overcome the influence and power of the elite bourgeois class. In Marxism, the dictatorship of the proletariat is the transitional period between capitalism and lower-stage communism, which was confusingly referred to as socialism by Lenin. The dictatorship of the proletariat overthrows the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie of contemporary society.

According to Marx, political power in the form of government is used by the bourgeoisie for its own self-serving interests in order to protect the private ownership of the means of production. For example, the law allows a boss to hire workers so that their labor can be sold by the boss for a profit, which can be described as theft, since the workers are not receiving the full benefits of their labor. However, if the workers decide to overthrow the unnecessary middleman and put an end to their exploitation, the law protects the boss because he, as a private individual, has ownership rights to the means of the production. Here, one can also see that the existence of private property necessitates an institution like the state to protect individual ownership rights.

It is important to note that Marx and Engels did not distinguish between “socialism” and “communism”, and used both interchangeably terms to describe a society absent of class, state, wage labor, private property, and commodity production.

Socialism, being defined as lower-stage communism can be described by the principle of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their contribution” whereas higher-stage communism can be described by “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”.

Central to Marxist philosophy is the idea of historical materialism, later developed as dialectical materialism in the Soviet Union. Marx theorized that the organization and development of society throughout history is fundamentally determined by the conditions in which people can produce and exchange in order to fulfill basic needs. In Marxist terms, these are respectively the productive capacity and the relations of production.

Thus, human history can be categorized as a general progression from primitive hunter-gatherer societies to slave society, then feudalism, then capitalism, and eventually socialism to communism.

Marxists and many non-Marxist socialists believe in “scientific socialism”, using one form or another of historical materialism to justify the inevitability of socialism. Scientific socialism uses the scientific method to analyze trends in social, economic, and political history to derive probable outcomes and future developments. This term was used to criticize “utopian socialists” like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who envisioned socialism as a hypothetical egalitarian and meritocratic society without analyzing the material conditions of society and class relationships.

Most socialists today are scientific socialists, and believe the socialism will arise not on the basis of ethical or moral disagreement with capitalism, but necessitated by changing material conditions. In essence, socialism is not a utopian vision of society that drives a population away from capitalism. Instead, it is the combined development of class conflict and the forces of production as a result of capitalism that pushes society towards socialism.


The Immortal Dialectical Science of Marxism-Leninism

Marxist-Leninists seek to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat through the leadership of a one-party, or revolutionary “vanguard” party state. The vanguard party is alluded to in the Communist Manifesto, in which the Communists are described as “the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country”, with the purpose of leading the proletariat into the formation of a dictatorship of the proletariat.

Leninism was developed as a response to the phenomenon of imperialism, whereby the exploitation of undeveloped countries resulted in higher standards of living for workers in capitalist countries and preventing the conditions for a revolution in developed countries. Therefore, Lenin justified a socialist revolution in underdeveloped, semi-feudal Russia as the first of many fronts against the bourgeoisie, contrary to Marx’s belief that the proletarian revolution would begin in the most developed country, which at that time was Germany. As a result, the working class of Russia was not fully developed, since there was still a divide between urban factory workers and the peasants in the countryside, leading to conflict within the proletariat.

Following Lenin’s example, other proletarian dictatorships used the state destroy the influence of the bourgeoisie by excluding them from the political sphere. The government of the Soviet Union was originally elected by various workers’ councils, known as soviets, around the country, which prevented political influence beyond the working and peasant classes.

In addition, the principle of democratic centralism was implemented in Lenin’s vanguard Bolshevik Party, where political discourse within the party flowed freely until a binding consensus had been made. The official policy reached by consensus was then expected to be upheld by all members of the party in order to promote unity in the party. In 1921, Lenin banned the formation of factions within the Communist Party, again urging unity in the face of the Kronstadt Rebellion and various famines. Joseph Stalin later used the ban to justify the expulsion of Trotsky and other party members, ironically furthering division within the international communist movement.

One trend found among many Marxist-Leninist states is their tendency to crack down on any type of dissent, labeling them as “anti-revolutionary”, “reactionary”, or relating to bourgeois society. Many Marxists influenced by Soviet Marxism believe that Enlightenment beliefs and freedoms such as separation of powers and freedom of speech are outdated because they limit the ability of the proletariat to achieve true liberty through the abolition of class and private property. Essentially, the ends justify the means.

In reality, the USSR became a large unstable bureaucracy which was incoducive to achieving socialism, and had instead created state capitalism. The state behaved like a corporation in its distribution of wage labor, ownership of the means of production, and brutally exploitative relationship with workers. Essentially, the bourgeois and aristocratic classes were replaced by the class of the Communist Party, acting as a single capitalist in the absence of democracy in the so-called “workers’ states”. A similar outcome can be observed in the People’s Republic of China with the market-based policies of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”.

It is important to note that the entire purpose of the dictatorship of the proletariat is to transition from capitalism to socialism by giving political power to the people. Marxists believe that the state would eventually “wither away” since it cannot exist without class and class conflict. So far, the opposite has proven to be true; where tested, the state has instead expanded its power in the name of protecting the revolution.


Democratic Socialism and Social Democracy

Having examined socialism both in theory and in practice, the question posed earlier can now be addressed. In democratic socialism, political democracy is emphasized as the essential accompaniment to the social ownership of the means of production. Thus, democratic socialism covers a highly broad range of ideologies, including libertarian variants of Marxism as well as socialist variants of free-market capitalism. Many democratic socialists believe in working within the framework of bourgeois democracies to spread class consciousness and gain popular support for socialism. The term is used to distinguish these socialists from Leninists, Stalinists, Maoists, who believe in democratic values to a much more limited extent.

Contrary to both Marxist-Leninists and democratic socialists, Sanders often points to the Nordic Model as his ideal society. Here, he has his own definition of socialism: “I don’t believe government should take over the grocery store down the street or own the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a decent standard of living and that their incomes should go up, not down.”

Although the Nordic Model and examples of social democracy in Europe do not constitute socialism, they exhibit socialist characteristics of social ownership and collective bargaining.

Ultimately, Sanders is a supporter of reforming capitalism to make it more humane, but not its abolishment, which is the distinguishes social democrats like himself and Franklin Roosevelt from democratic socialists like Martin Luther King Jr. and Eugene Debs. The shared agendas of the two ideologies generally include expansion of the social safety net and the welfare state funded by a progressive tax system. However, democratic socialists tend to expose the inhumane and undemocratic nature of capitalism and have the intent to implement social ownership of the means of production. In socialism, the “grocery store down the street” is in fact owned by the government, to the extent that the government represents the interests of the proletariat.


The Socialist Mode of Production

Socialism is different from capitalism principally in that it focuses on production for use, whereas the latter is based on production for profit. Socialism is a logical alternative to the wastefulness and irrationality of the capitalist mode of production.

Despite its shortcomings, capitalism has made great advancements for humanity. For example, for the first time in human history, there is enough food to satisfy the demands of the population of the whole world. However, one tenth of all people still go hungry, with 9 million dying every year. Around the world, there is more food than hunger. In the US and Europe, there are more homes than homeless. Capitalism has the ability to produce more than enough food, shelter, and basic necessities for a population far greater than the world currently has, but it fails to provide for all simply because it is not profitable.

In socialism, production corresponds to demand, and goods are made to be used, not sold on a market. For example, before labor is invested into producing yachts for individuals, the guarantee of food is ensured for all. According to Marxists, this economic planning can be organized through a system of labor vouchers, where socially necessary labor time can be exchanged for goods and services. In capitalism, goods are produced to make a profit, which oftentimes does not correlate with demand for the good itself. This trend is exemplified by the highly profitable luxury and entertainment industries, which oftentimes excessively rewards the successes of frankly untalented individuals and useless goods and services while those resources could be put towards alleviating large problems in society.


There are several areas of contention within the socialist movement mainly regarding the strategies and nature of the transition from capitalism to socialism. Socialists are divided between revolutionaries and reformists. They are divided between national communism and world communism. They are divided between socialism brought by a vanguard elite and socialism brought by democratic consensus. They are Marxist-Leninists, Maoists, Left Communists, and Anarcho-Communists.

In today’s society, workplaces are owned not by the people who work in it, but by a boss, who makes profit off of the labor of his workers. As a result, there is little to no democracy in the workplace.

The bourgeois revolutions in America and France, influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, brought forth political democracy in the face of monarchical tyranny. The socialist movement calls for revolution to bring forth economic democracy in the face of plutocratic tyranny.

By Daniel Song, Staff Writer

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